With the Levante SUV, Maserati looks the Porsche Cayenne in the eye. And blinks.
By JOSH JACQUOT Photography By MARC URBANO
Maserati has been here before. Preserving soul-stirring brand values while managing the balance-sheet realities of being a tiny carmaker has never been easy. The last time this Modena-based brand pulled it off, however, was long before Lamborghinis went from sharing farm fields with bulls to being named after bulls. In 1957, Maserati was a builder of low-volume sports cars and even lower-volume race cars. Back then, it was also an independent concern, unencumbered by the burdens or blessings of its current parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. When its “White Dame” prototype rolled out that year, the Grand Tourer led the way for the series production 3500 GT—a volume seller (relatively speaking, with about 2200 made) introduced into a market ripe for its combination of Italian speed, sound, and flair.
Times have changed.
The Levante feels less carlike than it looks. Its high-ish center of gravity is felt everywhere, and even with its many tractive tricks, it never feels truly eager.
Moving the sales needle on a comparable scale in 2017 means selling a truck. Well, okay, an SUV. To be completely fair, the Levante, undergirded by the Ghibli sedan, is a car-based SUV. Though it expands the market appeal of that platform, it faces no shortage of competition in the world of upscale crossovers. In the past year, Bentley and Jaguar have folded to the allure of SUV sales at the risk of enthusiast cred. And in the next two years, Aston Martin and Lamborghini will join the club.
But an SUV, Italian or not, comes with certain practical expectations. We used the Levante accordingly, loading it with kids and bicycles and navigating Michigan’s smooth gravel back roads and brutal tarmac two-lanes. In fact, it was on one such two-lane where we uncovered one of the Levante’s more defining traits. Observing the busyness of its steering and spleen-splitting ride in sport mode, our eight-year-old daughter issued the most obvious question: “Daddy,” she asked, “what happened to this thing?” Good question, kid.
The answer is twofold. First, Michigan happened. No two-lane in the heart of the Rust Belt survives more than a few years without measurable decay. Second, with its dampers in sport mode, the Levante is genuinely stiff; too stiff for Michigan, fine in California, and pretty good in northern Italy, where we first drove it last spring. Decoupling the powertrain from the stiffest damper setting improves ride quality without compromising engine response, but this is a tall wagon that feels so when driven with purpose. Our measurements confirmed the Levante’s 26.0-inch center of gravity to be higher than that of a BMW X5 M and a Porsche Cayenne Turbo—contradicting Maserati’s claim that it has the lowest center of gravity in the SUV class.
Computer-controlled air springs are standard and can raise or lower the Levante over a range of 3.4 inches. Six ride-height settings are available, depending on speed and drive mode. Though not obtrusive, the regular self-leveling is noticeable when the SUV is stopped.
The Levante’s hydraulically assisted steering, though full of noise, never really sings. Requiring medium effort at speed, the steering system conveys ample vibration through the column, but there’s little sense of the available grip, the road texture, or the approaching limits. This system proves that fantastic steering is less a product of hardware than it is of priorities. We’ll gladly take a carefully tuned electrically assisted system over one that pumps fluid but doesn’t communicate.
As priorities go, engine sound is one of Maserati’s biggest. And the Levante makes its noises the old-fashioned way—it earns them. Paolo Dellachà, the Levante’s chief engineer, proudly told us that the mill’s harmonics are all natural. Spent hydrocarbons find their way to aural glory when bypass valves in the exhaust system fully open in sport mode. And it is, indeed, a raw, gratifying noise, reaching a 6200-rpm crescendo, then pausing ever so briefly as the next gear is loaded and fired.
The twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 in S-trim Levantes snorts out 424 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque. Though the V-6 is pressurized to the same peak boost (17.9 psi), new intake and exhaust designs differentiate it from the 404-hp version of the engine in the all-wheel-drive Ghibli S Q4. Power, though not in short supply, often materializes only after an unnerving delay. Catch the dinky V-6 off-boost, and all the throttle mashing you can muster won’t produce meaningful motivation. Granting the turbos time to find purchase tried our patience on more than one occasion. Keeping the engine higher in the rev range by manually operating the gearbox—there’s a dedicated button for this—prevents such delays.
The Levante has more than just corporate positioning in common with the old 3500 GT. ZF, the German supplier that made the GT’s manual gearboxes all those years ago, now builds the Levante’s eight-speed automatic transmission. Today, however, you’ll row your own gears using column-mounted paddles with long, sleepy throws. Though revs are matched when lower gears are selected, aggressive downshifts are often denied.
The Levante’s standard all-wheel-drive system is tuned to send torque to the front wheels when conditions merit via an electronically controlled clutch. Its handling, however, doesn’t convey the rear-biased message since its front tires are easily overburdened during cornering. A clutch-type limited-slip differential operates on the rear axle in conjunction with a brake-based torque-vectoring system at both ends that slows the inner wheels in turns to rotate the SUV. In practice, it’s a capable machine but not a terribly rewarding one, reinforcing the idea that as long as Porsche is in the SUV business, all comers need to bring their A game. Optional 20-inch (265 front/295 rear) Continental summer tires helped produce 0.91 g on the skidpad.
The Maser is nicely packaged, with ample room front and rear. And it feels special inside, with aromas redolent of a Gucci warehouse.
In the absence of launch control (it’s not available) or any meaningful technique, the all-wheel-drive Levante finds 60 mph from a standstill in 5.1 seconds with a simple mash of the throttle and no wheelspin. It’s fleet enough to not be embarrassing, but you needn’t worry about blowing back the Pope’s golden mitre. A 13.6-second quarter-mile at 105 mph is identical to Jaguar’s less costly, less powerful, and smaller F-Pace’s run. We also observed 18 mpg for the big cat versus the Levante’s 15 mpg.
But this Italian’s most likely analogue is the stoic Porsche Cayenne, which in GTS trim also offers standard air springs, all-wheel drive, and a turbocharged V-6. At 118.3 inches, the Levante’s wheelbase is 4.3 inches longer than the Cayenne’s, giving it roomy front and rear berths.
If being special in an Italian sort of way is to be Maserati’s defining trait, then it has largely succeeded inside the Levante. Its interior is embellished where the Cayenne’s is antiseptic. It’s emotive where the Cayenne is restrained. And it’s just damned nice where, well, the Cayenne is nice. The aroma of leather permeates the cockpit, and its supple organic texture covers most every surface, including the dash and doors. The brown hides in our Levante were accented with stunning white stitching, front and rear. Open-pore wood-trim inserts complement the brushed-aluminum elements that form the sculpted door handles. Luciano Pavarotti, were he still belting it out at the Teatro alla Scala, would be at peace here for the commute home. The moment killer happens, however, with the observation that much of the Levante’s switchgear is shared with relatively cut-rate Fiat Chrysler products.
The FCA influence is a mixed blessing. Maserati, left to its own devices, might have given us only stunning beauty in lieu of function. FCA, which brings economies of scale, had other ideas. The high-resolution infotainment screen, at 8.4 inches, looks great and is big enough to be genuinely practical. The system operates with a competent familiarity and best-in-the-business speed, and it now has a console-mounted dual-knob interface improving its usability. It did, however, freeze twice during our time with the Levante, locking its driver out of audio and ventilation controls. On both occasions, the system had to sit overnight to regain its wits.
In person, this SUV isn’t what you’ll assume it to be from photos. Its hips are wider and its canopy narrower than is revealed in two dimensions. A long snout coupled with its overall proportions, especially its profile, evokes visions of the last-generation Infiniti FX SUVs. There’s a tall wagon-ness to it that precludes it from being either butch or elegant. But those are subjective claims to be adjudged personally.
The Levante is an enjoyable SUV with a stunning interior and a euphonic soundtrack. It breezes between corners capably and quickly and will only lose a drag race against the quickest SUVs made today. It isn’t, however, the best-driving sport/luxury crossover you can buy—especially at its $94,450 as-tested price. That fee, after all, will buy a well-optioned Porsche Cayenne S. The real measure of the Levante will be its influence on Maserati as a whole. If it becomes a sales leader for the brand, and it easily should, it can be leveraged to push a heritage-rich carmaker to sports-car and sedan revival, Porsche-style. That’s our hope, Maserati. Capisce?